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Medical Personal Challenge Essay--how to discuss being a victim of abuse and violence? Do we?

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Full Member
Volunteer Staff
7+ Year Member
Mar 12, 2013
  1. Resident [Any Field]
I've endured significant challenges in my life, but they're not related to my race (ORM) or SES. I've had a highly abusive father for my whole life, and the abuse took an extreme turn in middle school and high school. My mother was gaslighted into thinking that if she called the police and my father was taken away, he would destroy her life and mine. Lots of murder attempts, threats, etc. When I went off to college, I was still financially beholden to him, so the abuse continued through phone calls, texts, etc. Because I came from a family and background that's anti-therapy, I did not seek it in college out of fear that my parents would see it in an insurance bill. This lead to me being in MUCH worse situations in my research lab, where I endured pretty severe abuse, but thought that if I spent all of my afternoons, evenings, and weekends there, I could finally go to a good med school and be free of everything (LOL).

Things got worse and worse until I had to report my PI and a grad student to Title IX. However, my research work was successful and I got a perfectly good rec from my PI (found out about this from someone who read her rec). After graduating, I finally sought out therapy. I still deal with some bullies (e.g. one in my current lab--once I complained to my now-PI, he all but silenced her! very impressive), but I'm MASSIVELY better. To tell the truth, the accumulation of traumatic experiences over several years probably resulted in mild PTSD with pretty severe anxiety and depression that no one could easily see. Luckily, I don't think there's a formal diagnosis on my medical record or anything. Anyway, can I talk about these challenges in the context of "I endured x, learned y, and healed through z, providing insight q"? I often hear about such topics being taboo, and....it's not fair. It's not fair at all. I endured so much violence and really did well in spite of it all, and worked very hard with my therapist to go through CBT and restructure my thinking for the better...how can this not be significant?

In terms of other positive changes, I've encouraged my mother to go to physical therapy (success), mental therapy (after covid is over to avoid my father hearing her conversations), start doing things she loves again, and have invested into a large collection of specific art pieces to fulfill a life-long interior decoration dream that my father constantly stamped down. The latter could also be used as a "diverse personality quirk" and be used to briefly allude to the past abuse..."i collect this beautiful cool thing directly from artisans in x country, this is the artistic and economic significance, i do it to help my mother and i heal from this trauma...beautiful moving story etc. etc."

anyway, what do the experts think? for further context, I am applying to MD/PhD programs.
If these experiences have led to your desire to become or be a better physician, then use it. However, be aware that these are free game in interviews if you are putting this out there. Make sure you can easily talk about this at an interview.
Oct 14, 2011
  1. Academic Administration
If the prompt is specifically asking for challenges overcome, I would include your journey. Make sure it is succinct and read by a number if professionals who have helped you. I agree that you also must be emotionally prepared to talk about it so your comfort level and how far you can go needs to be tested in mock interviews with those same professionals and your references.

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Full Member
Moderator Emeritus
10+ Year Member
Sep 28, 2009
  1. Attending Physician
It sounds like the challenges you've faced in your personal life, while traumatic, have led to great growth and development. If you're able to talk about them intelligently and rationally, and you have speak to how they will make you a better physician, it sounds like a great topic to discuss in a personal statement.
I'm definitely cool to talk about these experiences during interviews and would welcome any questions--to be safe, I will certainly practice with others beforehand and test those comfort levels. I'll make sure to have those people read it over so it's succinct, intelligent, and rational, and speaks to the resilience, empathy, and compassion those experiences provided. This was much better than the [lack of] advice offered by my school. Thank you so much everyone, I really appreciate all of your help!!!!
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